Dice have a history as old as the history of man. Dice in various forms are the oldest gambling instruments known. Artifacts of dice games have been found in the tombs of ancient Sumeria and Egypt. Dice were notoriously popular in later Greek and Roman
times. The majority were made of bone (like the one shown below) or ivory. Others were made of bronze, agate, onyx, jet, alabaster, marble, rock crystal, amber, porcelain, and other materials. Etruscan dice found near Rome and made about 900 B.C. are similar to the dice of today, with the opposite faces adding up to seven: 1:6, 2:5, 3:4. Similar dice have been found in Britain in the prehistoric earthworks of Maiden Castle.
Sophocles claimed that dice were invented in Greece by Palamedes, who taught the game to the soldiers at the siege of Troy 3,000 years ago.
Herodotus attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who gambled as a diversion from the great famine in the days of King Atys.
In reality, dice had existed for thousands of years before Troy was founded and before the Lydians had a king.
Man’s very earliest written records mention dice and dice games… and crooked dice, as well. Archeological evidence points to the fact that dice games were played by both peasants and pharaohs in ancient Egypt. King Rameses III (c. 1182-1151 B.C.) had himself portrayed on the high gate of the temple of Medinet Haboo playing a dice game with two ladies of his harem. Ancient Egyptian religious writings mention dice games that are played by the spirits of the departed in the underworld.
Primitive tribes all over the globe have gambled with dice of many curious shapes and markings. The American Indian, the Aztec and Maya, the South Sea Islander, the Eskimo, the Africans… all played dice games, whether using plum and peach stones, pebbles, seeds, bones, deer horn, pottery, walnut shells, beaver teeth, or seashells.
Indeed, gambling has not been confined to any one nation or period in time. Tacitus wrote of the Germani in A.D. 99:
“They practise dice play, at which one will naturally wonder, soberly, and quite as if it were a serious business, with such hardihood in winning and losing, that, when they have nothing more left, they stake their freedom, and their person on the last cast of the die. The loser resigns himself voluntarily to servitude, and even if he is younger and stronger than his adversary, he allows himself to be bound and sold. Thus great is their staunchness in an affair so bad: they themselves call it ‘Keeping their word’.”
The most likely originator of dice is the witch doctor. Before developing into gambling implements, dice were magical devices which primitive man used to divine the future. Not only dice, but most other modern gaming implements have been traced back to primeval man’s practice of divination by arrows. (most notably by Stewart Culin, formerly director of the Brooklyn Museum, in his book Chess and Playing Cards, 1897).
Primitive dice dealt with the realms of good and bad luck. When the prehistoric priest or witch-doctor threw the sacred arrows (sticks, reeds and straws were also used) upon the ground and recited his magical spells, he read the future and foretold what good or bad fortune would attend the tribe.
Marco Polo described a variation of this process with a surprising result…
“…when the two great hosts were pitched on the plains of Tanduc… Chinghis Kaan one day summoned before him his astrologers… and desired them to let him know which of the two hosts would gain the battle – his own or Prester John’s… they got a cane and split it length-wise, and laid one-half on this side and one-half on that, allowing no one to touch the pieces.
“And one piece of cane they called Chinghis Kaan and the other piece, Prester John. And then they said, “Now, mark; and you shall see the event of the battle and who shall have the best of it…
“And to! whilst all were beholding the cane that bore the name of Chinghis Kaan, without being touched by anybody, advanced to the other… and got on top of it.”
The divinatory throwing of sticks is the casting of the lots of Biblical mention, and many ancient writers refer to the bundles of sacred tamarisk twigs used by the Magi of Chaldea and Babylonia, the divining rods of Assyria and the similar baresma of the Parsis of India.
The game of Jackstraws can be traced back to this divination by throwing sticks, and the fact that kwai, the name of the jade sceptres carried by the nobles of ancient China, is written with a character which, combined with the radical for “hand”, stands for kwa meaning “to divine with straws”, hints at the divining rod origin of the king’s sceptre. The magician’s wand would also be product of this line of evolution.
in other cultures, divining sticks were shorter and thicker and bore a greater resemblance to modern dice. Among the African tribes of Mashonaland, they are common among all the Abantu races and closely bound up with their occult belief
in witchcraft. On the evening of the new moon, the village witch-doctor will go around, tossing each man a set of dollasses in the air, and by the way they turn up he will divine the fortune of the individual for the month to come.”
The Livingstones who noted similar customs among the Zambesi referred to the diviner as a dice doctor. He also functioned as a detective since another use for his dice was that of discovering thieves.
Gradually these primitive fortune telling devices began to be used as fortune gaining devices. The mystical significance of the numbers was lost and the throw determined winning scores and decided the out-come of wagers. The liturgical rites became games.
As the arrow used in divination began, instead, to be used in gambling, three general types of games evolved: guessing games, games of chance and games of skill. In the guessing games, the arrow shaft became an ornamented gambling stick marked to denote rank which, in Korea, evolved into a deck of slim strips of oiled paper cards whose backs still bore an arrow feather design that indicates their origin.
Later Chinese cards of the same shape, called “stick cards”, bear figures whose resemblance to those on our present court cards is remarkable. [below]
The world’s oldest known playing card found in Chinese Turkestan is of this type and is dated at the eleventh century. They were introduced into Europe from China in the thirteenth century. “Even the ancestry of the book in Eastern Asia”, Culin says, “may be traced to the bundle of engraved or painted arrow-derived slips used in divination.”
In many of the early games such as the Korean Nyout, the Egyptian Tab and the ancient Pachisi (Parcheesi) of India, the throw of the dice controlled the moves of counters upon a marked playing surface as in the Backgammon of today. Later, when the dice and the element of chance was omitted, the game of pure skill developed and the counters became the men of Checkers, Chess, the Chinese Wei-Kei and the Japanese Go.
But before any of these developments, the dice were tossed alone in games that were pure gambling. If we can judge by the American Indian, primitive man and woman (she was often even more addicted to the practice than he) was an inveterate gambler.
The close association of gambling and the military man is also noted even that early. Edwin T. Denig in a report on the Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri said that…
“Most of the leisure time, either by night or by day, among all these nations is devoted to gambling… every day and night in the soldier’s lodge not occupied by business matters presents gambling in various ways all the time; also in many private lodges the song of hand gambling and the rattle of the bowl dice are heard. Women are as much addicted to the practice as men, though not being in possession of much property their losses are not so distressing.”
The most common method of play among the Indians was to toss the gaming disks of fruit stone, animal bone, wood or shell in a basket. The basket was raised a little, the stones tossed, and the basket brought smartly down to the ground. The combinations of sides which lie uppermost after the throw determined the count.
In the Cheyenne basket game five plum stones were used marked on one side only, three with crosses and the other two with a symbol representing the foot of a bear.
Two blanks, two bears and one cross counted nothing; one blank, two bears, and two crosses counted one point, etc.
The thrower who tossed two bears and three crosses won the game and the jackpot.
The dice shark’s sleight of hand is no recent invention, either. In a game played with dice of beaver teeth by the Twana tribe of Washington, one die with a string around its middle counted as high score when this die was up and the others down. “They sometimes learn very expertly to throw the one with the string differently from the others, by arranging them in the hand so they can hold this one, which they know by feeling, a trifle longer than the others.”
Most prehistoric dice were flat two-sided objects, but the knucklebone with its four sides, probably the oldest of them all, seems to have been the direct ancestor of our present day dotted cubical die. Marked and showing the polish that comes from
long use, specimens have been found in American prehistoric Indian mounds. One such specimen, unearthed in Florida was the knucklebone of a fossil llama.
The knucklebone is found among primitive remains throughout the world and is still, according to Culin, “in common use in the Mohammedan East, in southern Europe and Spanish America.” In Arabic, the word for the knucklebones is the same as that for dice.
The Greeks and Romans used the anklebones of a sheep and called them Astragali or Tali.
The Greek word Astragalomancy meaning divination by the astragalus, shows that they were also still being used as fortune telling devices.
In Rome gaming tables have been found engraved or scratched on the marble or stone slabs of the Forum, in the corridors of the Coliseum, on the steps of the temple of Venus and even in the house of the Vestals.
In The History of Gambling in England (London, 1898), John Ashton says, “Gaming tables were especially abundant in barracks, such as those of the seventh battalion of vigiles… and of the police of Ostia and Porto. Sometimes, when camp was moved from place to place, or else from Italy to the frontiers of the empire, the men would not hesitate to carry the heavy tables with their luggage. . .”
Augustus, Nero and Caligula, who cheated at the game, were passionate dice players.Claudius had dicing tables in his carriages and Seneca describes him as condemned to hell and made to play at dice forever with a bottomless box.Their dice were cast from conical beakers of carved ivory and the dice were sometimes of crystal inlaid with gold.
Professional gamblers were common and although severe laws were enacted forbidding dicing except during the Saturnalia, they were apparently not very strictly enforced. Loaded dice were not uncommon and one misspotted die bearing two fours suggests that the sleight of hand necessary to switch in a die was known and practiced by Roman cheats.
In addition to the anklebone the Greeks and Romans also used the tesserae or cubical six-sided dice, both sometimes being employed in the same game.And “they were thrown from dicing cups which contained crossbars to prevent the cheater from sliding the die out upon the board in a predetermined position.” In Egypt Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie found a very modern appearing six-sided die that was dated at 600 B.C. It was a limestone cube with drilled holes for pips.
The first home of modern dice, however, was probably the Orient. The Korean dice used in the Buddhist game of Promotion bear both a magical formula and directions for the next move, and the game sheet with which it was played bears directions in Sanskrit which suggests India as the origin.
There we find that the custom of fortune-telling with a die is practiced as a science under the name Ramala and the dice used are of a very familiar pattern. They are cubical and marked with the “birds-eye” spots that some of our dice also have. They are strung upon a central axis about which they are spun to determine the magical numbers, reference then being had to the pages of a book of fortunes numbered to correspond.
It is also in India that the first written records of dice (loaded ones, no less!) are found in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, in which “Doorjooden, having made a false set of dice, challenged Judishter, the commander of troops he was fighting, to play, which being accepted by him, he, in a short time, lost all his wealth and kingdoms.”
Dicing was a favorite pastime of the Middle Ages and both dicing schools and guilds existed. One of the earliest references in English is that in which Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143) reports that “clergymen and bishops are fond of dice-playing.”
Dice have even played a role in the destiny of nations. King Olaf of Norway, and his contemporary, King Olaf of Sweden, met at Konungahella in Norway in A.D. 1020 to decide the ownership of the isolated district of Hising. They agreed to throw two dice for its possession. The Swedish king threw two sixes, and smiled and said it was hardly worth the Norwegian’s while to make a throw. King Olaf of Norway replied, while shaking the dice in his hands, ‘Although these be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God to let them turn up again in my favour!’ Then he threw and had sixes also. The Swedish king re-threw, and again had two sixes. On the Norwegian king’s second throw, one die showed a six but the other split in two and there were seven pips showing. Norway gained the district and it is reported that the kings parted at the end of the meeting staunch friends.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. dicing spread throughout England. Hazard was the favorite game in low taverns, and although men could no longer stake their personal liberties on a throw, they played for everything else, even their clothing, on which the tavern-keeper, who acted as a pawnbroker, readily lent small sums of money. There are many accounts of travelers falling into the taverner’s hands and playing and drinking themselves destitute; and in an early fourteenth-century manuscript there is an illumination depicting two such players; the older is stark naked, while the younger is reduced to his shirt!
In 1190 an army regulation prohibited the Crusaders under the command of Richard the First of England and Philip of France from playing at any sort of game for money. However, this restriction applied only to the lowest ranking men-at-arms… knights and clergymen might play for money, but were penalized 100 shillings, payable to the archbishops of the army, if they were caught losing more than 20 shillings in one day and night. Naturally, the noble commanders, Richard and Philip, were completely exempted and had the privilege of playing for whatever sum they pleased, presumably being better able to afford their losses.
References to dice from this time forward become increasingly common, especially in the court records of the day. Elmer de Multone, for instance, was indicted in 1311 “for being a common night walker; and, in the day, is wont to entice strangers and persons unknown, to a tavern, and there deceive them by using false dice.” He pleaded not guilty, but the jury thought otherwise and threw him in jail. Where was the International Bone Rollers’ Guild when he needed them?